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Trends in Mobile Command Centers

Written by Jim Weiss

If your law enforcement agency is considering buying a new mobile command center (MCC) or upgrading its current one, LAW and ORDER went to representatives of several major MCC companies to get answers to some questions you might have.

We asked about everything, from trends in vehicle sizes and equipment to trends in features and funding. We also offer some tips for chiefs regarding what they needs to know about mobile command centers.

LDV Inc. 

LDV is a global manufacturer of emergency response and commercial specialty vehicles. They were the first-to-market with a number of industry innovations, and are currently the only supplier offering Intel-I-Touch™, which is a single touch activation panel that controls all operating and power management systems. We spoke to LDV’s Jerry Phillips about MCCs in today’s market.

In the 1980s, the length of mobile command centers was 30 feet. In the 1990s, the increased length of 36 feet became common. In the late-1990s, it went up to 40 feet.

In more than half of the states, 40 feet from bumper to bumper is the largest they can legally be. However, due to the nature of the various crisis situations that MCCs address, waivers exist that allow for them to be up to 45 feet long.

One of the reasons MCCs are getting bigger is to anticipate for future upgrades, including pre-wiring for future equipment and more electronic racks for additional technology changes. To meet this need, companies such as Freightliner have increased horse power, axle sizes and frame lengths to handle the larger size requirement.

One way to increase width is to have custom slide outs made to fit each vehicle. New MCCs can have one to four slide outs. These can allow for room sizes almost twice as large as seen in the past, which may be necessary to accommodate the necessary people and equipment.

In the past, the trend was for work stations to be in the front, with conference space in the rear. Now this has been reversed. Conference space in the front better accommodates more commanders, police, fire, FBI, politicians and others. The need for larger conference space can be accommodated with new configured seating and tables. One or two slide-outs in the front also improve the usable space and allow for easy passage with no one confined to their seated position. Previously, perhaps six work stations were popular. Now, four are more common, allowing for more conference space.

Conference space can be equipped with a TV or monitor overlay board (smart board), radios, phones and computer operations. Where there were two TV screens to monitor the mast camera and news stations, now the request is for five or six, as well as screens for surveillance around the MCC. This can be done with modulated video systems, which allow all TVs to display every video source in the vehicle. Video sources may include DVD players and recorders, DSS receivers, landline inputs, mast camera(s) and microwave downlinks. In planning for better communications, there might be a one-person workstation in the conference space. Back area work stations offer similar technology as in the past.

Satellite systems can be used as primary or back-up if cell phone or Internet service is down. Satellite dishes for MCC are now larger than ever before as the demand for bandwidth has increased with the need for VOIP and streaming video.

Another trend is to install NFTA diamond plate roofs. This allows users to walk anywhere on the roof and add support for roof-mounted equipment including a large antenna raceway. It is common to have 15 antennas and still have plenty of room for future technology that may require an antenna. Also, there are roof-mounted weather stations to monitor wind shifts for fire, chemical spills, etc.

Power awnings provide more space for people outside of the MCC. Under these slide awnings, exterior-mounted TV screens and exterior work stations can be positioned. Such additional exterior space can better accommodate a briefing or debriefing of a group such as a SWAT team or EOD team. Personnel can remain outside the MCC watching what’s going on inside, eliminating crowding.

Be able to justify the grant you are applying for. Layouts and technologies are constantly evolving, and these can be considerations in grant funding. Having a good grant writer is a plus. Proposals for regional use MCCs are more likely to receive funds. The key is to work with a reputable MCC-making company that can build a unit for a reasonable dollar amount for the mission.

Agencies that have a completed design and know the dollar amount they are looking for have a better chance of receiving a grant as deadlines can be very short. Some agencies are awarded a grant within a few months while others may take a few years. However, it is important to continue to apply.

Mobile Specialty Vehicles 

According to Glen Henderson, president and CEO of MSV, their command centers are designed to include inside and outside workstations, conference rooms, satellite communications and security control centers. These MCCs can accommodate any number of specialized features and their multi-functional areas provide both room and versatility.

As for equipment and communications, according to Henderson, everyone is tightening their belts these days. One trend they see is that agencies are leaving out some equipment options until the next budget year. Equipment options almost always ordered include items such as masts with cameras, exterior workstations, dry erase walls and slide-out rooms. Coffeepots are, of course, standard issue.

With so many options available, equipment often costs more than the vehicle. With the funding issue, the availability of grants varies greatly. Agencies close to the border seem to be getting more federal funds due to border control issues. The most helpful tip? Shop around. If a company has not been building MCCs for at least 10 years, pass on them. This is a tough business, and Henderson has seen several competitors go out of business.

When times get tough, MCC manufacturers tend to start slashing prices to get sales. This is a sure sign they are in trouble. It is one thing to be $4,000 to $5,000 cheaper than another manufacturer when you’re talking about a vehicle that costs in excess of $300,000, but prices $30,000 to $40,000 cheaper than the competition are red flag signaling that something is wrong. The top tier manufacturers will be within a few thousand dollars of each other. Remember, if something seems too good to be true, it definitely is.

Dodgen Mobile Technologies

According to Dennis Day of Dodgen Mobile Technologies, due to budget restraints command vehicles are not going up in size. In fact, the request is often for smaller vehicles. While big MCCs were popular after 9/11, there has been some downsizing. Other advantages of smaller MCCs include the fact that they can get down alleys and off road to places larger MCCs can’t go.

With equipment and communications, features that used to be optional are now almost always ordered. New features on the market that are sometimes placed on hold are weather stations, satellite, surveillance cameras and smart boards. When it comes to obtaining grants, the most notable of the funding sources are Homeland Security grants. However, it is sometimes an issue that states will not supply the percentage of grant funding required by Homeland Security due to budget problems.

The big tip from Dodgen? Make sure you have two sources of power. In the law enforcement industry, when an incident occurs, your equipment must be ready to operate when you are. When ordering your MCC, request a load analysis. This makes sure your source of power will accommodate your equipment and any additional equipment you might add in the future. Make sure that when your agency requests a bid, allow for the specifications to be flexible. Watch out for products that are not quality. A cheaper price is not always a good choice. And finally, research the vendor you are considering and request at lease five references.

Farber Specialty Vehicles 

According to Ken Farber of Farber Specialty Vehicles, agencies are typically buying the largest mobile command centers their budgets will allow. The exception to the size is if the community has maneuvering issues with large vehicles. The price needs to include all of the optional items the department’s review team has deemed necessary. One feature that has become extremely popular is slide out rooms because workspace can be enlarged without lengthening the vehicle. Most of the vehicles Farber manufactures today are 102 inches wide, which is an increase from the past when 96 inches was the standard.

The typical command post includes the latest innovations in communications and interoperability, satellite access for Internet and TV, light towers, masts with cameras, computers, radios, weather station and LCDs with smart board technology. As for funding, a majority of their purchases are funded through Homeland Security and Justice Department programs, UASI and other grants. The company has not seen any noticeable reduction in purchases due to the economy.

The most helpful tips from Farber? Select a builder with a solid reputation for quality and after-sale support and service. Have the project leader visit the manufacturing plant. After receiving the new MCC, put someone in charge of the vehicle to make sure maintenance and service are performed when needed.

Sirchie Vehicle Division 

According to Tony Saggiomo, vice president and CEO of Sirchie Vehicle Division, in addition to building a mobile command center from an appropriate, weight-bearing chassis on up, the company can turn any commercial vehicle or SUV into a first responder command vehicle. This allows the field commander to react quickly and effectively to an emergency situation.

A wide array of mobile command center sizes are still requested even in these harsh economic times, but overall, fewer of these specialty vehicles are being built. Mid-range and medium-large MCCs are often purchased by counties, while smaller law enforcement agencies might build their command centers on SUV platforms, combining the functions of command and first responder. These come in many different size options.

Sirchie is still seeing the construction of very large, heavy apparatus-style chassis as well as mid-range, multi-tasked mobile vehicle centers. These can be designed to serve dual functions, such as crime scene and command/communications. Conference areas and operations/communications areas are included in addition to crime scene forensic equipment areas.

These combination command/crime scene vehicles are equipped with Sirchie forensic products, which might include forensic light sources, fingerprint development, evidence drying cabinets and forensic workstations, optical enhancement equipment, narcotic and blood alcohol test kits, sexual assault and DNA evidence collection kits, gunshot residue collection kits, personal protection equipment and proprietary law enforcement software.

As for equipment communications, in general, today’s MCCs are better equipped. The trend is toward deleting satellite and Internet capabilities with advanced cellular uplink. Instead, PC-based equipment and smart phones are used to access Internet connectivity.

Currently there is also more interoperability communication equipment available. This allows key public safety personnel to talk with one another and exchange voice and other forms of data via the real-time communication systems. Homeland Security grants emphasize interoperability communications systems.

Funding for mobile command centers is down as communities don’t have the capital needed for direct purchases or matching funds required by grants. Current funding for MCCs is still available using old Homeland Security grants, but popular Homeland Security grant programs that aid law enforcement agencies are being reduced or eliminated in favor of several grant programs that help state and local communities.

This company’s number one tip? When planning for a vehicle of this nature, be sure the foundation systems consisting of the vehicles weight capacity, available power and climate control for your MCC, are strong enough to support the mission. This includes the weight rating and space needed to accommodate equipment such as telescoping pneumatic mast and camera towers, generators, cabinetry and personnel who must operate within the vehicle during the critical incident. Commercial RVs often do not have the durability required for MCCs.

The onboard power plants should have adequate capacity to handle all installed items plus excess capacity for carry-on and anticipated future expansion. The unit should be configured to accommodate multiple-operator radio communication sections, galleys to support extended on-scene operations, conference rooms, lavatories, video monitoring, weather stations, etc. Climate control should be tailored to the region where the vehicle will be deployed. For example, northern cities and counties are going to need ample heating as opposed to those agencies in southern climates that will need high output air conditioning.

As a mobile platform, the command center should be maneuverable enough to be used in the locations where it will be deployed. For example, shorter wheelbase vehicles with tighter turning radiuses are better for inner city locations. Four-wheel drive and On Spot chain systems might be desirable for the Snow Belt or off road regions. In addition, your agency needs to make certain that the personnel who will be driving it are comfortable in that duty. A commercial driver’s license might be required because the type of license necessary is based upon the weight of the unit.

Last but not least, MCCs are sometimes manufactured for tasks that are not normally thought of as command vehicle operations, such as underwater rescue and command units. A dive team needs a vehicle especially designed for the unique demands and applications it encounters. Some of the additional features that Sirchie designs for this application are corrosion-resistant cabinetry with “flow thru” ventilation, wet suit storage, and changing areas with “V” shaped, sloped, non-slip flooring and drains.

Oshkosh Corporation

Steve Williamson, director of sales at Frontline, Bill Proft, senior chief engineer and market manager for Rescue Products with Pierce, and Dawn Ruchala senior marketing communications manager at Pierce Manufacturing/Medtec Ambulance offered info about their company structure. The Oshkosh Corporation is made up of several specialty vehicle manufacturers, including Pierce Manufacturing, Oshkosh Defense and Frontline Communications. The companies have extensive experience in tailoring mobile command and specialty truck bodies for the law enforcement market.

They say vehicle sizes are still being driven by the application as well as the budget. Larger, self-propelled vehicles and trailers are required for medium to long-term deployments and larger scale operations, while smaller vehicles are needed for rapid response and communication. Specific vehicle applications like Emergency Ordnance Disposal (EOD) are available in many platform sizes and types based on budgets, the number of responders and unique customer requirements.

New MCC equipment trends include video over IP, which has a lower cost and is easier to deploy than conventional microwave systems and costs less than satellite systems. LED monitors and standard definition (SD) cameras typically installed on a telescoping mast have become standard equipment in many vehicles. High definition cameras, although twice the cost of SD cameras, are becoming more popular as well.

Optional equipment is still driven by individual customer requirements. In fact, many of Frontline's standard optional equipment items were developed from customer ideas for solving specific problems or improving the performance of a vehicle. Part of the Frontline philosophy is that customer involvement on the front end of specific vehicle designs and new projects is critical to the success and evolution of its products.

Municipal spending from operating budgets is down significantly due to the reduced tax revenues during the last couple of years. However, grants from programs such as Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) are still available and are becoming a primary means for funding mobile command centers.

This company’s top tip? Identify the capabilities and functionality for the vehicle before writing your specifications. Going out to bid with a "loose" set of specifications will only guarantee that the vehicle will not meet your requirements. If you have questions, work directly with a manufacturer to learn more. Insure that the manufacturer provides detailed drawings of the vehicle, especially a complete and detailed set of systems and communications equipment drawings. Oshkosh provides a comprehensive drawing package, typically 15 pages, which includes a drawing for each subset of the system such as rack elevations, video, audio, VGA, AC, DC, network, phone, radio, etc. These are very important for systems maintenance and future system upgrades.

Carefully review the vehicle construction specifications and warranties to insure the highest quality vehicle. Confirm that the manufacturer has the engineering, manufacturing and service resources to provide support after the sale. Vehicle construction quality and complete service capabilities are often overlooked and not all manufacturers are the same. Working with a quality manufacturer equipped to address issues when they arise will result in reliable asset deployment in emergency situations. These vehicles must be able to respond and perform their missions today as well as many years from now.

Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, Ohio, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER. Mickey Davis is a California-based writer and author.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2011

Rating : 10.0


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